The New York Times (national edition), Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox, and USA Today all lead with secretary of state nominee Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearings, which featured the occasional pointed question and Rice defending Bush administration policies, particularly on Iraq. Rice also gave a nod to a softer international approach, saying "the time for diplomacy is now."The Washington Postfronts the hearings, but its top national news spot goes to powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Republican Bill Thomas, saying the White House's likely Social Security plan is politically untenable and will quickly become "a dead horse." The Los Angeles Times leads with a poll echoing ones earlier this week: The public is still split on President Bush and his policies. (Note: The washingtonpost.com had troubles last night, so TP couldn't see most Post stories.)
USAT decides to go with the few fireworks: "POINTED QUERIES DIRECTED AT RICE." The other papers stick to the substance. The NYT focuses on Iraq, where Rice declined to accept what is now commonly accepted: The United States didn't go in with enough troops. Rice also said "some progress" is being made in training security forces and said 120,000 Iraqis have now been trained. The papers all cite Sen. Joseph Biden calling that "malarkey" and saying only 4,000 troops are really trained. (If only the papers took the time to ... do their job and attempted to explain who's right.)
Most of the papers highlight Rice declining to set a timeline for leaving Iraq. What goes unnoticed is the flipside of that: As Slate's Fred Kaplan flags, Rice also declined to affirm that the United States won't cut-and-run ("withdraw the bulk of its forces," as Biden put it) in the next year. "I can't judge that," Rice said.
Overall, says the Journal, Rice "offered few new ideas for grappling with trouble spots such as Iran and North Korea."
The hearings—which a NYT editorial dubs "political theater"—will continue for a bit this morning, after which Rice has been promised confirmation.
Everybody goes inside with the latest from Iraq, where early this morning two car bombs hit central Baghdad, one next to the Australian embassy. At least seven Iraqis were killed and about 40 wounded. Yesterday, Mosul's archbishop was freed, eight Chinese workers were taken hostage, and three political candidates were killed. One GI was also killed in Baghdad.
The archbishop said the guerrillas kept asking him if he's a spy. "I told them you do not know me," he said. "We are Christians, and we believe the Americans are occupiers."
TheNYT, whose Iraq catch-all is full of good stuff, notices that Iraq's interior minister warned that if the elections don't go well "there will be chaos, and we will have a civil war." The Times notes, "Gunfire rattled behind him nearly the whole time he spoke."
And though it's not mentioned in the article itself, the Times also has a bracing photo of an Iraqi girl whose parents were apparently mistakenly killed by GIs at a checkpoint.
American Ambassador John Negroponte also acknowledged that for all the endless estimations about the numbers of guerrillas, "I'm not sure anybody has a handle on the size of the insurgency."
The LAT's lead bellows: "SUPPORT FOR WAR IN IRAQ HITS NEW LOW." That's mostly based on the fact that only 39 percent of respondents agreed that the "situation in Iraq was worth going to war over." But is it fair to invoke the "situation in Iraq" as an overall measure of whether the war was worth it? Doesn't that implicitly exclude in the calculation the possibility of a better future? (And no, TP isn't joking.)
The NYT looks at reconstruction in Basra, which has been going swimmingly, relatively speaking. A U.S. contractor has renovated the entire central water system. And the result: "Before, we had to pump for 30 minutes to get any water, and now we pump for 20 minutes," said an Iraqi engineer. "The water may be a bit cleaner." As for electricity, residents now get about four hours per day, says the Times, "the least in anyone's memory, before or after the American invasion."
The NYT says inside that attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales acknowledged in documents to the Senate that the CIA isn't bound by a 2002 presidential directive stating that al-Qaida suspects must be treated humanely. The Times says the CIA is still "largely bound" by the apparently looser congressional bans on torture. The Post looks at the same docs but doesn't mention the CIA angle: "TORTURE BY U.S. PERSONNEL ILLEGAL, GONZALES TELLS SENATE."
A suicide bomber in Gaza killed an Israeli officer and wounded several soldiers. "Israel will respond, and how," said the country's defense minister.
A few think-tank types use a NYT op-ed to toss out an intriguing brainstorm on Iraq:
Ask Iraqi voters in a referendum six weeks after the national elections if they think foreign soldiers should withdraw immediately. Let the Iraqis debate what the absence of American forces will mean for their families and nation. Tell them we'll hold the referendum every nine months until they vote us out or we determine it's time to leave.
Will Iraq's mess be cleaned up overnight if the Iraqis vote for us to withdraw? No, but our withdrawal after a referendum telling us to go would signal a willingness to engage with Iraq as an ally rather than an occupier, a perception that January's elections are unlikely to correct.